The Audacity of Hopelessness

Head in Hands

Last sum­mer, I came across another of those darkly hilar­i­ous post-recession job search sto­ries. In this par­tic­u­lar install­ment, one Tay­lor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales man­ager from the San Diego Padres, an orga­ni­za­tion to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the stan­dard radio silence response to her appli­ca­tions, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “oppor­tu­nity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bar­gain price of $495.

And that’s when Grey–whose pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence report­edly included an intern­ship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, fir­ing off an email described by the sports web­site Dead­spin as “one of the great emails of our time.”

After care­ful review, I must decline. I real­ize I may be burn­ing bridges here, but in the spirit of reci­procity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charg­ing to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trou­ble bor­row­ing one.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, her response pro­ceeded to go viral, and—as Dead­spin wrote—“per­haps, on bal­ance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, ask­ing her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”

All of which got me think­ing about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Nor­mal – and how the best strate­gies some­times emerge only after you’ve given up.

My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point.  One of the stan­dard pieces of advice to any­one who’s gone through a lay­off is to down­play the lay­off part and up-play what you’ve accom­plished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the begin­ning. I kept busy! Vol­un­teered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defi­ant. Which explains my deci­sion to write pub­licly about being unemployed.

The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unem­ploy­ment was pub­lished with the provoca­tive head­line “Even Har­vard Couldn’t Pro­tect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my edu­ca­tional pedigree—though my real point was some­thing quite dif­fer­ent: That nav­i­gat­ing unem­ploy­ment requires tremen­dous inner resources, far more, in my expe­ri­ence, than what’s needed to nav­i­gate success.

Like Grey’s, my writ­ing elicited a range of responses—from with­er­ing accu­sa­tions of self-indulgence to heart­felt words of sup­port.  (I still cher­ish one defense: “Does Salon have no stan­dards at all?” my sup­porter rhetor­i­cally asks, quot­ing an espe­cially vir­u­lent attacker.  And then goes on to answer: “Obvi­ously not. If they did — most of the first few let­ters in response to a Gut­man piece would be mod­er­ated into obliv­ion. The fact that they allow their excel­lent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) .…”)

While my Salon essays on unem­ploy­ment didn’t lead to a job right away, in ret­ro­spect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me vis­i­ble to peo­ple in a posi­tion to hire me. One of these was a for­mer Har­vard col­league who reached out last sum­mer when an open­ing came up in her depart­ment. (A side ben­e­fit: When I inter­viewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the work­force. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last Sep­tem­ber. Things are going well.

Let me be clear: When I talk about the ben­e­fits of hope­less­ness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever help­ful. What I’m talk­ing about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The dan­ger of hope is that it can tie us to a very spe­cific iter­a­tion of a very spe­cific story at a time when we’re far bet­ter served by stay­ing alert to oppor­tu­ni­ties in what­ever form they take. The more wed­ded we are to a spe­cific outcome—the more we nar­row our sights—the harder it may be to craft a ful­fill­ing life with the mate­ri­als at hand.

I don’t know what’s hap­pened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morn­ing but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Pub­lic Fig­ure” Face­book page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the fol­low­ing tagline: “Tay­lor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the base­ball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apolo­gies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a per­sonal brand.

Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

2013 Yield

Last week, a pro­ducer at Huff­Post Live emailed me to ask if I’d be will­ing to talk about New Year’s res­o­lu­tions for an upcom­ing seg­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d writ­ten about willpower and whether I’d been able to accom­plish this year’s goals.

It seemed like some­thing that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by say­ing that I don’t really make res­o­lu­tions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to some­one else.

Until this con­ver­sa­tion, I hadn’t quite real­ized how deep my resis­tance runs. Sim­ply put, New Year’s res­o­lu­tions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for fail­ure. A set-up for stay­ing stuck. Res­o­lu­tions assume a fix­ity that, in my expe­ri­ence, sim­ply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me for­ward today.

This is espe­cially true in times of tran­si­tion, when life is inher­ently unpre­dictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a per­sonal explo­ration of strate­gies to nav­i­gate loss and uncer­tainty after the Great Reces­sion. One of my major ongo­ing lessons has been the impor­tance of stay­ing open – of not insist­ing that the future take a cer­tain form.

As I drafted this post, I hap­pened on a print out of writer Vir­ginia Woolf’s New Year Res­o­lu­tions that I’d totally for­got­ten about until now but likely had been sav­ing for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Vir­ginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fer­nald.) Dated Jan­u­ary 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my res­o­lu­tions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I espe­cially love the fact that even the res­o­lu­tion of mak­ing no res­o­lu­tions extends only three months forward.)

Speak­ing for myself, I could never have pre­dicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envi­sioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to pro­vide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as end­points – I think of them as step­ping stones and exper­i­ments. This means stay­ing curi­ous and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serv­ing me? Or is it time for some­thing else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Action­able goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in them­selves. Goals can be great tools, but they are ter­ri­ble masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tac­tics you may want to try.

Be strate­gic in how you use your lim­ited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huff­in­g­ton Post piece, which draws heav­ily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeis­ter and John Tierney.)

If you’re strug­gling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re con­tend­ing with a com­pet­ing goal. This strat­egy comes from my one-time pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, who pro­poses the fol­low­ing four-column exer­cise. Iden­tify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find ful­fill­ing work), (2) The behav­iors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t mean­ing­ful to me), (3) Com­pet­ing com­mit­ments (e.g., I need to main­tain a cer­tain income and level of sav­ings), (4) Assump­tions that under­lie and sup­port the third-column com­mit­ments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, every­one will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar course of action but rather to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what dri­ves you – an aware­ness that can lead to a pro­found shift in per­spec­tive. (The exam­ple above is based on an inter­view I did with Kegan ear­lier this year for this piece in Psy­chol­ogy Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or orga­nize your office or any of the other zil­lions of tasks that we set for our­selves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and mean­ing, what­ever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for shar­ing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

Turkish delight

What qual­i­ties are most help­ful in nav­i­gat­ing Plan B Nation?

Hav­ing given this ques­tion a lot of thought, I’ve con­cluded that one of the most impor­tant is a capac­ity for open­ness. By this I mean, an abil­ity to drop ideas of how life should be — to be open to the unex­pected gifts in unex­pected detours and derailments.

It wasn’t until Plan B Nation guest blog­ger Ellen Rabiner asked me to rec­i­p­ro­cate that I real­ized how much this insight owes to my time in Turkey. In a new guest post for Ellen in Turkey, I explain how this came to be.

40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

At the er for a migraine

I wake up a lit­tle before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled mus­cle act­ing up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gob­ble a bunch of Advil and hob­ble back to bed.

A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly won­der if I should mosey over to the Emer­gency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a cou­ple more Advil, pack up my com­puter, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.

I’m eat­ing my crois­sant and sip­ping cof­fee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my lap­top screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.

Well, as you’ve likely fig­ured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giv­ing me grief. It was a kid­ney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a cal­ci­fied some­thing try­ing to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice:  Refrain from get­ting one.

It’s really good you came in,” said the med­ical tech­ni­cian, who started the IV drip to admin­is­ter pain meds and fluids.

I hadn’t brought any­thing to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Hol­i­day greet­ings from the Coo­ley Dick emer­gency room! Work­ing hypoth­e­sis: kid­ney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.

Thanks to social media, I had instant company.

I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences bet­ter by craft­ing the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or some­thing like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped.  She was talk­ing about this, and in fact, I already was.

At the time the pain struck, I was fin­ish­ing up a col­umn for Sec­on­dAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Hap­pi­ness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times best­seller The Hap­pi­ness Project. I’ve some­times jok­ingly call Plan B Nation  “a Hap­pi­ness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s pic­ture per­fect life—and I wanted to write about that.

But lying in the ER, my mind wan­dered to two of Rubin’s pre­vi­ous books—Forty Ways to Look at Win­ston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.  And then: Forty Ways to Appre­ci­ate a Kid­ney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re inter­ested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in def­er­ence to whim­si­cal­ity, I left the title unchanged.)

Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my mis­ad­ven­ture. “I was so con­vinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”

As it hap­pened, Lisa had her own such story. Walk­ing down a dark Brook­lyn street a num­ber of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking char­ac­ters ambling towards her. If you see some­thing sus­pi­cious, always look at your watch. A friend had described hav­ing done just that after see­ing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Tow­ers. Now Lisa did it her­self. In an instant, she saw her­self on the wit­ness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.

Oh! I’m not a wit­ness! I’m the vic­tim!” was her first aston­ished thought.

You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” cre­ate sto­ries, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accord­ingly.  At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But help­ful as our minds may try to be, they some­times lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.

Forty Ways to Appre­ci­ate a Kid­ney Stone

1. It wasn’t some­thing worse

2. I got to meet the super nice super kind peo­ple in the Coo­ley Dick emer­gency room

3. I wasn’t out of town

4. I didn’t have the dis­ap­point­ment of can­celling hol­i­day plans (had been feel­ing a lit­tle glum about not hav­ing any. Now I was glad.)

5.  It didn’t hap­pen right before a work deadline

6. I wasn’t screw­ing up any­one else’s hol­i­day plans

7. It gave me an oppor­tu­nity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again

8. It led me to appre­ci­ate health in a way I hadn’t the day before

9. It gave me another way to reflect on the qual­ity of open­ness that I’ve been mulling; the abil­ity to see out­side expec­ta­tions. In brief, my ini­tial ten­dency was to attribute this to a flar­ing of a sports injury. In fact, it was some­thing different.

10. I told a nurse about Gree­nie pill pock­ets for her aging cat

11. I appre­ci­ated liv­ing in a place with easy access to med­ical care

12. I now know what these symp­toms mean in the event they strike again

13. I know I should be drink­ing more water.

14. Another way to con­nect with friends

15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least some­times, I’m get­ting bet­ter than I used to be about life not going accord­ing to my plans.

16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.

17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.

18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.

19. Appre­ci­ate FB—didn’t have to call any one per­son but had com­mu­nity sup­port, felt not alone + knew I had some­one to call on if it turned out I did need help

20. Friends who offered to help

21. Made me appre­ci­ate insurance

22. Made me appre­ci­ate Mass, where health insur­ance is affordable

23. Made me appre­ci­ate my apartment—quiet, rest­ful, safe space to recuperate.

24. Appre­ci­ate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER

25. Writ­ing about this gives me a chance to con­nect with others—and maybe help some­one else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research sug­gests that help­ing oth­ers makes us hap­pier than doing things for ourselves.)

Why follow-through is overrated

trying to look perfect

This month’s Life Exper­i­ment has been a total bust. Except that it’s also been a total suc­cess. Let me explain.

As some read­ers will recall, I began this month with the idea that I would take at least one pho­to­graph each day. I was inter­ested in how this would shift the way I moved through the world and also viewed it as an oppor­tu­nity to learn to use a recently acquired but lan­guish­ing dig­i­tal camera.

All of this made sense in the­ory. In prac­tice? Not so much. Here’s how it played out.

At the end of a har­ried Day 1, I snapped a hasty photo with my iPhone. (Bet­ter than noth­ing, I told myself.)

Day 2, same thing.

By Day 3 or 4, I’d for­got­ten about it. Ditto the days that fol­lowed. Until at some point over the next week I real­ized that this wasn’t happening.

My first reac­tion was to get stressed out over my follow-through fail­ure. What was I going to write this month? What would I say to you readers?

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw another pos­si­bil­ity.  After all, this was billed as an exper­i­ment. No, it hadn’t gone off as planned, but that was entirely dif­fer­ent from say­ing that it had been a total loss. I decided—as an experiment—to adopt a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, to detach the expe­ri­ence from the goal and ask what it had to teach me.

Here’s what I found:

1. I need to recon­nect with my core purpose.

When I embarked on monthly Life Exper­i­ments at the start of 2012, my goal wasn’t to cre­ate yet another to-do list. Rather it was to explore how chang­ing one thing in my life might lead to other unex­pected shifts. Over time, I’ve started to lose track of this, and my “exper­i­ments” have come to feel more and more like 30-day Chal­lenges. Be more pro­duc­tive! Just do it!  That wasn’t what I’d been aim­ing for, but it’s where I ended up. Time for some reflec­tion and retuning.

2. I need to do less, not more.

The rea­son I wasn’t tak­ing pho­tos was very sim­ple. I’m really really busy!  Over the past six months, I’ve gone from strug­gling to fill my days with mean­ing­ful activ­i­ties to a jam-packed sched­ule, with free­lance dead­lines, work­shop facil­i­tat­ing, friends, exer­cise, and life main­te­nance all vying for time. This is in many ways a good thing, but it also has its own chal­lenges, which I need to find ways to address. (Also: I need to take time to appre­ci­ate how far I’ve come!)

3.  I need to do more to infuse my life with playfulness.

I recently wrote about an ah hah recog­ni­tion that I need more play­ful­ness in my life. Dur­ing my time in Plan B Nation, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my abil­ity to sim­ply carry on, to put one foot in front of the other dur­ing hard and uncer­tain times. There have been days—and not a few—when sim­ply get­ting out of bed felt like a real accom­plish­ment. It seemed like enough that I could say, in the words of 12-step pro­grams every­where, that I’d man­aged to “take the next right action.”

But I’ve come to see that, while this approach can be help­ful in times of cri­sis, it’s not (for me) the best approach to life over the long haul. Over the long haul, I want to be happy, not sim­ply to endure. Get­ting things done is cer­tainly part of a happy life, but it’s far from sufficient.

Lan­guage plays a big role here: The more I think about this issue, the more aware I am of how the words I use shape the qual­ity of my daily expe­ri­ence. Tool kit. Task List. March­ing orders. This is the lan­guage of com­mand and con­trol. This is the lan­guage that, all too often, I use when I talk to myself (when issu­ing march­ing orders).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For exam­ple, instead of “next right action” how about “bread­crumbs”? Think fairy tales, think Hansel and Gre­tel and the trail they left to find their way back home. (Okay, so in the story birds eat the bread, but I still like the metaphor.)

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about what qual­i­ties help us thrive while trav­el­ing Plan B Nation (and other psy­cho­log­i­cally harsh ter­rains), and it seems to me that one of the most impor­tant is the qual­ity of open­ness. By this, I mean the abil­ity to see alter­na­tives and pos­si­bil­ity where we might eas­ily see failure.

In a fea­ture story about famous acci­den­tal dis­cov­er­ies, the Daily Beast recounts how the dis­cov­ery of peni­cillin came about after Scot­tish bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist Andrew Flem­ing noticed that mold had started to grow on some cul­tures he’d left exposed. Years later, he toured a state-of-the-art med­ical lab, far cleaner than the one where his sci­en­tific break­through occurred.

If you had worked here, think of what you could have invented,” his guide remarked.

Fleming’s cool response: “Not penicillin.”

Plan B Nation bookshelf: Aging as a Spiritual Practice (+ book giveaway)

Aging is depress­ing,” a friend announced, after see­ing Iron Lady, the new Mar­garet Thatcher biopic star­ring Meryl Streep.

This is no doubt true, at least for some of us, some of the time. But even more to the point is this salient fact: It hap­pens to all of us.

Given the inevitabil­ity of grow­ing older, it seems sen­si­ble to give some thought to how we can mine this expe­ri­ence for what­ever good it con­tains. In this spirit, I was drawn to read Bud­dhist teacher Lewis Richmond’s new book Aging as a Spir­i­tual Prac­tice: A Con­tem­pla­tive Guide to Grow­ing Older and Wiser (Gotham Books 2012).

Richmond’s mes­sage is twofold: On the one hand, every­thing we love is des­tined to change, age, and pass away. On the other, “every moment brings with it new oppor­tu­ni­ties” if we can only stay open to them.  In writ­ing this book, he set out to help us do just that.

As Rich­mond sees it, our goal should be flexibility—physical, men­tal, and emotional—qualities that research has linked to longer and health­ier lives. With this end in mind, he offers an array of Buddhist-infused med­i­ta­tions and tools along with shar­ing his own life story and those of oth­ers, includ­ing sev­eral inspir­ing exam­ples of “the extra­or­di­nary elderly.”

Rich­mond stresses that the chal­lenges of aging aren’t lim­ited to those on the far side of mid­dle age—and may not even cor­re­late with chrono­log­i­cal age. “I’m twenty-seven, and I’ve sud­denly real­ized that I’m grow­ing old,” wrote one cor­re­spon­dent.  “I’m seventy-three, and I’ve never felt younger,” wrote another.

But while our inner expe­ri­ences may dif­fer, there are com­mon denom­i­na­tors. “Aging is not just change, but irre­versible change—for bet­ter or worse,” Rich­mond observes. Some may find this insight depress­ing, but I found it strangely lib­er­at­ing. If you’re any­thing like me, you spent a lot of your young adult­hood lean­ing into the future, striv­ing to cre­ate the con­di­tions for what­ever life you thought would make you happy. For me, an upside of reach­ing mid­dle age has been an enhanced capac­ity to live in the present moment (which, as the Bud­dhists have told us for mil­len­nia, is all that we ever really have).

I was also struck by the extent to which the skills Rich­mond says we need to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate aging have much in com­mon with those needed to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate Plan B Nation, regard­less of age. For exam­ple, Rich­mond talks about the impor­tance of cre­at­ing new iden­ti­ties to replace those we have lost—as true for a newly unem­ployed as it is for an aging retiree.

In par­tic­u­lar, I liked this exer­cise. I plan to try it. You might want to try it too:

Make three lists. In the first, include what has been lost in the last three or five or 10 years (you pick the time frame).  In the sec­ond, include what has been gained. In the third, include new pos­si­bil­i­ties for replen­ish­ing your iden­tity.  And with this last list, Rich­mond urges, “Reach as high and as far as you can.”

Note: Gotham Books has kindly pro­vided an extra copy of Aging as a Spir­i­tual Prac­tice for me to give away. For a chance to win the book, leave a com­ment below.  At the bot­tom of your com­ment, please indi­cate you’d like to be entered in the draw­ing by typ­ing the word “give­away.” The draw­ing is next weekend.